Escape Shanghai: beyond Sichuan peppercorns and pandas in Chengdu

Eating in Chengdu has never been known for the faint of heart… or the weak of stomach

Photograph: courtesy The Temple House (Mi Xun Teahouse)
Eye-watering levels of spice, mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns, roiling cauldrons of hotpot – eating in Chengdu has never been known for the faint of heart… or the weak of stomach. But while the provincial capital’s love of chillies and tingle-inducing prickly ash berries may define what many of us think of as Sichuan cuisine, Chengdu’s gastronomic culture and rich history run much deeper. Whether you’re making the pilgrimage west for the giant pandas or to discover the city’s blossoming arts and cultural scene, no matter what, make sure to go hungry.

From thick coils of tianshui mian, or ‘sweet-water’ noodles (try Dongzikou Zhang Lao Er Liangfen across from Wenshu Monastery) to chilli-flecked pots of chuan chuan, or vegetable and meat skewers cooked in spicy broth (try local chain Maojiao Houla), Chengdu isn’t short of addictive cheap eats and traditional street food. But for a glimpse into the forefront of the city’s contemporary gastronomic scene, head to The Bridge.

Photograph: courtesy The Bridge

Photograph: courtesy The Bridge

With polished interiors by Neri and Hu, the modern Sichuanese restaurant is perched on the city’s historic Anshun Bridge over the Jinjiang River. Acclaimed Taiwanese chef Andre Chiang (behind Taipei’s celebrated restaurant Raw and newly opened Sichuan Moon in Macau) took over in early 2018, working with the restaurant’s long-time Sichuanese chef Li Hongshun to reinvent the menu in a way that draws on forgotten traditions while looking forward. The province’s cuisine is much more than simply fiery heat and mouth-numbing peppercorns, says Chiang. Traditionally there are 24 flavours in the complex cuisine, which he presents throughout the contemporary Sichuanese menu in dishes like yuxiang (‘fish fragrant’ sauce) marble goby fish, guaiwei (‘strange flavour’) beef cubes that are at once salty, sweet and spicy or a dozen small pickled plates to start the meal.

Photograph: courtesy The Bridge

Photograph: courtesy The Bridge

Tucked in a modest but elegant house with under 20 seats for diners per night, Yu Zhi Lan (No 1, 24 Changfa Jie) is a deep dive into classic Sichuanese cuisine with a few creative twists by legendary Chengdu chef Lan Guijun. Lan’s elegant, subtle cooking – perhaps best illustrated by thin-as-silk duck yolk noodles cut by hand in a delicate broth – isn’t a Chengdu-only experience (a second location opened last year in Shanghai), but the humble charm of the original restaurant prevails.

In a similarly delicate and refined vein, Mi Xun Teahouse at boutique hotel The Temple House (81 Bitieshi Jie) offers a never-ending menu of teas from across China alongside vegetarian cuisine inspired by fare once served at Daci Temple, the thousand-year-old Buddhist temple that’s now bustling shopping mall Taikoo Li Chengdu. A hotpot filled with fragrant black truffle and pu’er tea broth and accompanied by six speciality mushrooms, black tofu and handmade spinach noodles, stands in sharp relief to the oil-slicked, vermillion hotpots elsewhere in the city.

MIXUN Open Kitchen 1
Photograph: courtesy The Temple House (Mi Xun Teahouse)

Photograph: courtesy The Temple House (Mi Xun Teahouse)

For a shock of the brash, unapologetic flavours you might expect from Sichuan, dip into perennially busy Ming Ting. The unassuming 20-year-old institution is one of the city’s most famous ‘fly restaurants’, so called for their middling hygiene standards but excellent food. Tuck into huge platters of home-style dishes like the signature mapo tofu with pig brains, lotus leaf-wrapped pork belly or guaiwei pork ribs under a showering of pickled beans.

Take a break from the city with a day trip out to the Chengdu Sichuan Cuisine Museum (8 Ronghua Bei Xiang) in Pidu district. Located just over an hour outside of the city centre, the museum is set on 27,000sqm of land with neoclassical gardens, a replica of a restaurant alley in Qing Dynasty Chengdu, an old-style teahouse and an exhibition hall tracking the development of Sichuan cuisine through thousands of antique ceramics. Perhaps the best part? The 60RMB entry includes complimentary snacking on over two dozen traditional Chengdu street foods in the museum’s garden.

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